Sophocles’ Theban Plays
Oedipus the King
Angered Tiresias implicates Oedipus:
So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this.
You with your precious eyes,
you're blind to the corruption of your life,
to the house you live in, those you live with—
who are your parents? Do you know? All unknowing
you are the scourge of your own flesh and blood,
the dead below the earth and the living here above,
and the double lash of your mother and your father's curse
will whip you from this land one day, their footfall
treading you down in terror, darkness shrouding
your eyes that can see the light!
The following quotations expresses two ideas central to the Greek world view. First, that the gods strip down the over-proud man, the man filled with hubris. Second, that we competition is healthy.
Destiny guide me always
Destiny guide me filled with reverence
pure in word and deed.
Great laws tower above us, reared on high
born for the brilliant vault of heaven—
Olympian Sky their only father,
nothing mortal, no man gave them birth,
their memory deathless, never lost in sleep:
within them lives a mighty god, the god does not
grow old. Pride breeds the tyrant
violent pride, gorging, crammed to bursting
with all that is overripe and rich with ruin—
clawing up to the heights, headlong pride
crashes down the abyss—sheer doom!
No footing helps, all foothold lost and gone.
But the healthy strife that makes the city strong—
I pray that god will never end that wrestling:
god, my champion, I will never let you go.
These two ideas are present in many of the ancient Greek works; Hesiod, near the opening of Works and Days, speaks of strife that causes men to compete with one another, doing people good; Herodotus' stories highlight his belief that the gods tore down over-proud men—he also explicitly discusses this idea; the Iliad is filled with proud men striving with one other to "be the best."
The Chorus, after Oedipus is revealed:
O the generations of men
the dying generations—adding the total
of all your lives I find they come to nothing...
does there exist, is there a man on earth
who seizes more joy than just a dream, a vision?
And the vision no sooner dawns than dies
blazing into oblivion.
You are my great example, you, your life
your destiny, Oedipus, man of misery—
I count no man blest.
Oedipus, chases after his wife and mother Jocasta:
no wife, his mother, where can eh find the mother earth
that cropped two crops at once, himself and all his children?
He was raging—one of the dark powers pointing the way,
with a great shattering cry—someone, something leading him on—
he hurled at the twin doors and bending the bolts back
out of their sockets, crashed through the chamber.
And there we saw the woman hanging by the neck,
cradled high in a woven noose, spinning,
swinging back and forth. And when he saw her,
giving a low, wrenching sob that broke our hearts,
slipped the halter from her throat, he eased her down,
in a slow embrace he laid her down, poor thing...
then, what came next, what horror we beheld!
He rips off her brooches, the long gold pins
holding her robes—and lifting them high,
looking straight up into the points,
he digs them down the sockets of his eyes, crying, "You,
you'll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused!
Too long you looked on the ones you never should have seen,
blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind
from this hour on! Blind in the darkness—blind!"
His voice like a dirge, rising, over and over
raising the pins, raking them down his eyes.
And at each stroke blood spurts from the roots,
splashing his beard, a swirl of it, nerves and clots—
black hail of blood pulsing, gushing down.
The Chorus, at the end of the play:
People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus.
He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,
he rose to power, a man beyond all power.
Who could behold his greatness without envy?
Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.
Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no many happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
This metric for judging the happy life is in Herodotus' fable of Solon meeting Croesus.
Oedipus at Colonus
dear friend, only the gods can never age,
the gods can never die. All else in the world
almighty Time obliterates, crushes all
to nothing. The earth's strength wastes away,
the strength of a man's body wastes and dies—
faith dies, and bad faith comes to life,
and the same wind of friendship cannot blow forever,
holding steady and strong between two friends,
much less between two cities.
For some of us soon, for others later,
joy turns to hate and back again to love.
And even if all is summer sunshine now
between yourself and Thebes,
infinite Time, sweeping through its rounds
gives birth to infinite nights and days...
and a day will come when the treaties of an hour,
the pacts firmed by a handclasp will snap—
at the slightest word a spear will hurl them to the winds—
some far-off day when my dead body, slumbering, buried
cold in death, will drain their hot blood down,
if Zeus is still Zeus and Apollo the son of god
speaks clear and true.
here in the land of horses are a glory
you have reached the noblest home on earth
Colonus glistening, brilliant in the sun—
where the nightingale sings on,
her dying music rising clear,
hovering always, never learning,
down the shadows deepening green
she haunts the glades, the wine-dark ivy,
dense and dark the untrodden, sacred wood of god
rich with laurel and olives never touched by the sun
untouched by storms that blast from every quarter—
where the Reveler Dionysus strides the earth forever
where the wild nymphs are dancing round him
nymphs who nursed his life.
And here it blooms, fed by the dews of heaven
lovely, clustering, morning-fresh forever,
narcissus, crown of the Great Goddesss
Mother and Daughter dying
into life from the dawn of time,
and the gold crocus bursts like break of day
and the springs will never sleep, will never fail,
the fountainhead of Cephisus flowing nomad
quickening life forever, fresh each day—
life rising up with the river's pure tide
flowing over the plains, the swelling breast of earth—
nor can the dancing Muses bear to leave this land
or the Goddess Aphrodite, the charioteer
with the golden reins of love.
Suffer us to live here ... even in these straights
our life is not as pitiful as you'd think,
so long as we find joy in every hour.
Oedipus declaring his innocence to Creon, in front of Theseus and the Athenians:
Unctuous, shameless—where do you think your insults
do more damage, my old age or yours? Bloodshed
incest, misery, all your mouth lets fly at me,
I have suffered it all, and all against my will!
Such was the pleasure of the gods, raging,
perhaps, against our race from ages past.
But as for me alone—
say my unwilling crimes against myself
and against my own were payment from the gods
for something criminal deep inside me...no, look hard,
you'll find no guilt to accuse me of—I am innocent!
And my mother...
wretched man, have you no shame? Your own sister!
Her marriage—forcing me to talk of that marriage!
Oh I'll tell it all, I won't be silent, not now,
you and your blasphemous mouth have gone so far.
She was my mother, yes, she bore me—
oh the horror—I knew nothing, she knew nothing!—
and once she'd born me then she bore me children,
her disgrace. But at least I know one thing:
you slander her and me of your own free will,
but I made her my bride against my will,
I repeat this to the world against my will. No,
I'll not be branded guilty, not in that marriage,
not in the murder of my father, all those crimes
you heap on me relentlessly, harrowing my heart.
Quotations are taken from Robert Fagles' 1982 translation of The Three Theban Plays, published by Penguin Classics.